The 5th Wave
Page 14

 Rick Yancey

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Just go. It doesn’t matter, Cassie. Does it matter? No. It doesn’t matter.
Sometimes you say things to your fear—things like It doesn’t matter, the words acting like pats on the head of a hyper dog.
I stood up. No, it really didn’t matter if the soldier had a mouth like a lobster or looked like Justin Bieber’s twin brother.
I grabbed Sammy’s teddy from the dirt and headed for the far side of the clearing.
Something stopped me, though. I didn’t head off into the woods. I didn’t rush off to embrace the one thing with the best chance to save me: distance.
It might have been the teddy bear that did it. When I picked it up, I saw my brother’s face pressed against the back window of the bus, heard his little voice inside my head.
For when you’re scared. But don’t leave him. Don’t forget.
I almost did forget. If I hadn’t walked over to check Branch for weapons, I would have. Branch had fallen practically on top of poor teddy.
Don’t leave him.
I didn’t actually see any bodies back there. Just Dad’s. What if someone had survived those three minutes of eternity in the barracks? They could have been wounded, still alive, left for dead.
Unless I didn’t leave. If there was someone still alive back there and the faux soldiers had gone, then I would be the one leaving them for dead.
Ah, crap.
You know how sometimes you tell yourself that you have a choice, but really you don’t have a choice? Just because there are alternatives doesn’t mean they apply to you.
I turned around and headed back, stepping around the body of Branch as I went, and dove into the dusky tunnel of the trail.
I DIDN’T FORGET the assault rifle the third time around. I shoved the Luger into my belt, but I couldn’t very well expect to fire an assault rifle with a teddy bear in one hand, so I had to leave him on the trail.
“It’s okay. I won’t forget you,” I whispered to Sammy’s bear.
I stepped off the path and wove quietly through the trees. When I got close to the compound, I dropped and crawled the rest of the way to the edge.
Well, that’s why you didn’t hear them leave.
Vosch was talking to a couple of soldiers at the doorway to the storehouse. Another group was messing around by one of the Humvees. I counted seven in all, which left five more I couldn’t see. Were they off in the woods somewhere, looking for me? Dad’s body was gone—maybe the others had pulled disposal duty. There were forty-two of us, not counting the kids who had left on the buses. That’s a lot of disposing.
Turns out I was right: It was a disposal operation.
It’s just that Silencers don’t dispose of bodies the way we do.
Vosch had taken off his mask. So had the two guys who were with him. They didn’t have lobster mouths or tentacles growing out of their chins. They looked like perfectly ordinary human beings, at least from a distance.
They didn’t need the masks anymore. Why not? The masks must have been part of the act. We would expect them to protect themselves from infection.
Two of the soldiers came over from the Humvee carrying what looked like a bowl or globe the same dull gray metallic color as the drones. Vosch pointed at a spot midway between the storehouse and the barracks, the same spot, it looked like, where my father had fallen.
Then everybody left, except one female soldier, who was kneeling now beside the gray globe.
The Humvees roared to life. Another engine joined the duet: the flatbed troop carrier, parked at the head of the compound out of sight. I’d forgotten about that. The rest of the soldiers must have already loaded up and were waiting. Waiting for what?
The remaining soldier stood up and trotted back to the Humvee. I watched him climb aboard. Watched the Humvee spin out in a boiling cloud of dust. Watched the dust swirl and settle. The stillness of summer at dusk settled with it. The silence pounded in my ears.
And then the gray globe began to glow.
That was a good thing, a bad thing, or a thing that was neither good nor bad, but whatever it was, good, bad, or neither, depended on your point of view.
They had put the globe there, so to them it was a good thing.
The glow was getting brighter. A sickly yellowish green. Pulsing slightly. Like a…A what? A beacon?
I peered into the darkening sky. The first stars had begun to come out. I didn’t see any drones.
If it was a good thing from their point of view, that meant it was probably a bad thing from mine.
Well, not probably. Leaning more toward definitely.
The interval between pulses shortened every few seconds. The pulse became a flash. The flash became a blink.
Flash, flash, flash.
In the gloom, the globe reminded me of an eye, a pale greenish-yellow eyeball winking at me.
The Eye will take care of her.
My memory has preserved what happened next as a series of snapshots, like freeze-frame stills from an art house movie, with those jerky, handheld camera angles.
SHOT 1: On my butt, doing a crab-crawl away from the compound.
SHOT 2: On my feet. Running. The foliage a blur of green and brown and mossy gray.
SHOT 3: Sammy’s bear. The chewed-up little arm gummed and gnawed since he was a baby slipping from my fingers.
SHOT 4: Me on my second attempt to pick up that damned bear.
SHOT 5: The ash pit in the foreground. I’m halfway between Crisco’s body and Branch’s. Clutching Sammy’s bear to my chest.
SHOTS 6–10: More woods, more me running. If you look closely, you can see the ravine in the left-hand corner of the tenth frame.
SHOT 11: The final frame. I’m suspended in midair above the shadow-filled ravine, taken right after I launched myself off the edge.
The green wave roared over my curled-up body at the bottom, carrying along tons of debris, a rocketing mass of trees, dirt, the bodies of birds and squirrels and woodchucks and insects, the contents of the ash pit, shards of the pulverized barracks and storehouse—plywood, concrete, nails, tin—and the first couple of inches of soil in a hundred-yard radius of the blast. I felt the shock wave before I hit the muddy bottom of the ravine. An intense, bone-rattling pressure over every inch of my body. My eardrums popped, and I remembered Crisco saying, You know what happens when you’re blasted with two hundred decibels?
No, Crisco, I don’t.
But I’ve got an idea.
I CAN’T STOP thinking about the soldier behind the coolers and the crucifix in his hand. The soldier and the crucifix. I’m thinking maybe that’s why I pulled the trigger. Not because I thought the crucifix was another gun. I pulled the trigger because he was a soldier, or at least he was dressed like a soldier.
He wasn’t Branch or Vosch or any of the soldiers I saw that day my father died.
He wasn’t and he was.
Not any of them, and all of them.
Not my fault. That’s what I tell myself. It’s their fault. They’re the ones, not me, I tell the dead soldier. You want to blame somebody, blame the Others, and get off my back.
Run = die. Stay = die. Sort of the theme of this party.
Beneath the Buick, I slipped into a warm and dreamy twilight. My makeshift tourniquet had stopped most of the bleeding, but the wound throbbed with each slowing beat of my heart.
It’s not so bad, I remember thinking. This whole dying thing isn’t so bad at all.
And then I saw Sammy’s face pressed against the back window of the yellow school bus. He was smiling. He was happy. He felt safe surrounded by those other kids, and besides, the soldiers were there now, the soldiers would protect him and take care of him and make sure everything was okay.
It had been bugging me for weeks. Keeping me up at night. Hitting me when I least expected it, when I was reading or foraging or just lying in my little tent in the woods thinking about my life before the Others came.
What was the point?
Why did they play that giant charade of soldiers arriving in the nick of time to save us? The gas masks, the uniforms, the “briefing” in the barracks. What was the point to all that when they could have just dropped one of their blinky eyeballs from a drone and blown us all to hell?
On that cold autumn day while I lay bleeding to death beneath the Buick, the answer hit me. Hit me harder than the bullet that had just torn through my leg.
They wanted Sammy. No, not just Sammy. They wanted all the kids. And to get the kids, they had to make us trust them. Make the humans trust us, get the kids, and then we blow them all to hell.
But why bother saving the children? Billions had died in the first three waves; it wasn’t like the Others had a soft spot for kids. Why did the Others take Sammy?
I raised my head without thinking and whacked it into the Buick’s undercarriage. I barely noticed.
I didn’t know if Sammy was alive. For all I knew, I was the last person on Earth. But I had made a promise.
The cool asphalt scraping against my back.
The warm sun on my cold cheek.
My numb fingers clawing at the door handle, using it to pull my sorry, self-pitying butt off the ground.
I can’t put any weight on my wounded leg. I lean against the car for a second, then push myself upright. On one leg, but upright.
I might be wrong about them wanting to keep Sammy alive. I’d been wrong about practically everything since the Arrival. I still could be the last human being on Earth.
I might be—no, I probably am—doomed.
But if I’m it, the last of my kind, the last page of human history, like hell I’m going to let the story end this way.
I may be the last one, but I am the one still standing. I am the one turning to face the faceless hunter in the woods on an abandoned highway. I am the one not running, not staying, but facing.
Because if I am the last one, then I am humanity.
And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.
Head, hands, feet, back, stomach, legs, arms, chest—everything hurts. Even blinking hurts. So I try not to move and I try not to think too much about the pain. I try not to think too much period. I’ve seen enough of the plague over the past three months to know what’s coming: total system meltdown, starting with your brain. The Red Death turns your brain to mashed potatoes before your other organs liquefy. You don’t know where you are, who you are, what you are. You become a zombie, the walking dead—if you had the strength to walk, which you don’t.
I’m dying. I know that. Seventeen years old and the party’s over.
Short party.
Six months ago my biggest worries were passing AP Chemistry and finding a summer job that paid enough for me to finish rebuilding the engine on my ’69 Corvette. And when the mothership first appeared, sure, that took up some of my thoughts, but after a while it faded to a distant fourth. I watched the news like everybody else and spent way too much time sharing funny YouTube videos about it, but I never thought it would affect me personally. Seeing all the demonstrations and marches and riots on TV leading up to the first attack was like watching a movie or news footage from a foreign country. It didn’t seem like any of it was happening to me.
Dying isn’t so different from that. You don’t feel like it’s going to happen to you…until it happens to you.